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December 6, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Ministry of Marlin Mayhem

by Jay Jaffe

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One thing that I clearly underestimated in Monday's Prince Fielder piece was the Marlins' interest in making another big splash following the signing of Jose Reyes to a six-year, $106 million deal. In that I'm not alone; nearly everyone in the industry appears to be surprised that the Marlins have ramped up their pursuit of Albert Pujols. Multiple sources have them offering the slugging first baseman a 10-year deal in excess of $200 million, one that is said to trump the offer the Cardinals made last winter. Apparently, the team even thinks this is practically a done deal, though the Cardinals will get another turn at bat.

Still, I'm wary of how this all goes down for the Fish. The new ballpark is long overdue relative to the competition in terms of providing the team with a quality baseball-only facility, but it's fair to wonder how quickly fans will forgive Jeffrey Loria for the way he's run the franchise in the past. The Marlins have ranked last in the NL in attendance for six straight seasons, and have risen above 15th only once since the end of the 1998 season. That was 2004, when the warm afterglow of their second world championship lifted them all the way to 14th. Those poor showings at the gate weren't a reaction to a continuously crappy product; the team has four finishes above .500 since 2003, and no more than two losing seasons in a row.

Those attendance rankings were more of a reaction to the minimal payrolls and continued transience of the roster, which not only was a problem in and of itself, but became a bigger thing once evidence surfaced that revenue-sharing had helped them turn a tidy profit. The situation is now even higher up the Defcon scale given the launch of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the sweetheart stadium deal the team received at taxpayer expense. You don't overcome all of that in one winter or even two, even by committing over $300 million in superstar contracts, to say nothing of the fact that once the heat is on with regards to this investigation, the crisis could compare to those the Mets and Dodgers have been forced to weather due to the Madoff and McCourt fiascos. Which means another fire sale, something with which this fan base is all too familiar.

So there's that, and that's without accounting for the honeymoon effect produced by new stadiums—fans flock to them in the first year or so, but unless a team can sustain some level of contention, the effect soon wears off. Once the Marlins' payroll passes $100 million, contention is imperative. Look no further than what's happening to the last long-suffering team to get a new ballpark, the Twins, who went from a $65 million Opening Day payroll in 2009, the last year of the Metrodome, to $98 million in 2010 when Target Field opened, to $113 million last year after Joe Mauer's extension kicked in. Thanks to bad planning and myriad injuries, they stumbled into 99-loss ignominy and a last-place finish last year, and so this winter, they're paring back to around $100 million, with the commitments to Mauer and poor Justin Morneau quickly becoming a burden, and next year's team anything but the favorite in a division that has the Indians and Royals on the rise. 

Reyes' signing has already created another problem with regards to Hanley Ramirez's public ambivalence about a position switch. The various wars between team president David Samson and Logan Morrison, or between Jeff Conine and Hanley Ramirez, had already created the impression of ongoing organizational disharmony, which does the organization's reputation for player transience no favors. Coming off a terrible season (.243/.333/.379, 0.5 WARP)and owed $46.5 million over the next three years, Ramirez can't be made to disappear easily or without some expense, and the potential for further drama seems high. New manager Ozzie Guillen is probably not the ideal prescription for that situation, but it's now part of his job.

If you can suspend disbelief long enough to assume that the Marlins solve the Ramirez problem and land Pujols—and I take no legal responsibility for the intake of any substance required to get to that point—and wave off any notion of decline from new closer Heath Bell, whose three-year, $27 million deal started this deluge, there's still the small matter of whether the team has enough starting pitching to contend in 2012. Ace Josh Johnson threw just 60 1/3 innings last year due to shoulder inflammation, and has reached 30 starts exactly once in six seasons, not including his 2005 cup of coffee. Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez are credible mid-rotation guys who provided over 400 innings of solid work between them last year, though the former's ERA has now failed to match his stats for three straight years due to a .327 BABIP, long enough to make it clear that he's probably not going to evolve into somebody more interesting. Javier Vazquez rose from the dead midway through the season—a 7.09 ERA through his first 13 starts, a 1.92 mark through his next 19—and threw 192 2/3 innings of quality work that must also be replaced given that he's a free agent who is leaning toward retirement. Chris Volstad and Brad Hand both look like fifth starters at best, and there's nothing special on the horizon, prospect-wise. So there's a clear need for another frontliner, and that's in addition to whatever luck it takes in the health department to get around 600 innings out of Johnson, Nolasco, and Sanchez. Signing Pujols would presumably make Gaby Sanchez into a trade chip, but he's 27 years old and produced 2.9 WARP in two years, so he's not going to bring back a number-two starter in a deal. As I'm writing this, Fox's Ken Rosenthal suggests that Loria is not ruling out signing C.J. Wilson as well as Pujols, which ought to be enough to launch a Drug Enforcement Agency investigation into what the hell everyone is smoking. A quick and dirty estimate puts Reyes, Pujols, and Wilson alone at $55-60 million a year over however many years the lefty's deal would wind up being, with Bell adding another $9 million per year for the first three.

So, I just don't see how all of this can happen, or can hold together for long even if it does. New ballpark or no, the current regime's penchant for creating internal disharmony between management and players is still relevant, as is the Marlins' history in blowing themselves up. Note that Reyes did not receive a no-trade clause, and that Samson has declared that none of the new Fish in the pond will receive one, Pujols included. Still, the very fact that it's the nouveau riche throwing their money around instead of the old wealth of the Yankees and Red Sox makes for a very different Winter Meetings than we've been used to.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

24 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Dave Holgado

Good stuff, Jay. In fairness, I think the attendance rankings to a large extent really have been about the old stadium -- not merely because it's a lousy park in which to see a game, but because it's over 15 miles outside of downtown Miami. The new stadium isn't repeating either of these mistakes, and one would think that this really will actually have a positive effect at the gate. All this is to say that I can actually see this Pujols thing happening, as well as a real run at Cespedes, who would create a great deal of excitement for Miami's large Cuban-American population (the new park is located in the "Little Havana" section of town, after all).

Dec 06, 2011 16:03 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

good point on stadium location - I must admit that I know the particulars about the Rays situation a bit better, but I hadn't even looked at a map w/r/t the Marlins one.

As of Wednesday morning, there's a growing sense here that the Cardinals are going to retain Pujols now that they have made what's been reported as a 10-year, $220 million offer.

Cespedes could still be a sensible and much more affordable move with some definite upside.

Dec 07, 2011 09:56 AM
 
Lou Doench

If we can't have Reyes, maybe the Reds can swing a deal for Hanley? Brandon Phillips would become the best teammate the guy ever had, he'd be the best bat at ss we've had since the zombie barry larkin years? Cmon, a guy can dream...

Dec 06, 2011 16:49 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Loria's projecting 2.5 million to 3 million in attendance for next year, virtually doubling his team's attendance.

http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20111205/sports/111209818/-1/rss04

Waking up from that dream will make him double check his pocketbook. Then the fire sale begins.

Dec 06, 2011 17:06 PM
rating: 3
 
saigonsam

If the goal is to win championships, then you really can't fault the Marlins model. Put together an expensive team, win the World Series, and then dismantle the team for young prospects that win a 2nd championship five years later. Maybe the Cubs should try this strategy.

Dec 06, 2011 19:41 PM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

You forgot the model where Loria sells the team in two to three years after winning the World Series.

Dec 06, 2011 23:54 PM
rating: 1
 
jj0501

Does this make the Marlins, like the commercial, the Most
Interesting Team in MLB ?

Dec 07, 2011 04:51 AM
rating: 0
 
Jack Thomas

Great article! I have yet to hear the MLB network talking heads mention the SEC investigation of the Marlins? Is MLB trying to keep it quiet?
It is hard to believe the Marlins did not address the Ramirez issue before signing Reyes. If they are forced to trade Hanley, they will get low value for him. I do not understand how they could afford Bell, Reyes, Pujols & Wilson. The Bell, Reyes & Pujols deals involve significant risk.
If Johnson is not healthy, add Ozzy to the fire & its sounds like a future disaster.

Dec 07, 2011 05:32 AM
rating: 1
 
jtanker33

Maybe it is just me, but the idea of the best hitter of my generation playing his age 31+ years for the Miami Marlins has a silly feel to it. I mean, really? Do we have a historical example of a player widely-considered the best in his sport signing with a franchise that to that point had been considered less than first-rate? Would this be like if Ted Williams left the Red Sox and signed with the St. Louis Browns in 1950 or something?

Dec 07, 2011 05:35 AM
rating: 1
 
salvomania
(449)

World Series Championships, 1997-2011

4 Yankees
2 Marlins
2 Cardinals
2 Red Sox
1 White Sox
1 Giants
1 Diamondbacks
1 Angels
1 Phillies

For the record, the Browns won zero World Series in their history, and played in just 1 (during WWII) in their 50-year existence.

Dec 07, 2011 11:09 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

Is there not a real risk here that Miami end up stuck with a couple of untradably bad contracts, minimal crowds and not enough money coming in to pay the bills? Suppose they sign Pujols and him and Reyes get off to Crawford/Werth style starts. The Marlins would have to absorb a huge amount of salary to move them then.

Dec 07, 2011 05:36 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Oh, absolutely, and that's the point - were they to sign Pujols as well, I don't think they can survive anything but a fairly positive outcome very quickly.

Dec 07, 2011 09:52 AM
 
terryspen

As a five-year Marlins season ticket holder, I believe most of the attendance problem was playing at Dolphin/ Pro Player/ Your Name Here stadium.

The sight lines were horrible, particularly beyond first and third base, and every night it was 85 degrees, 85 percent humidity and 85 percent chance of rain. And let's not even talk about day games in a South Florida stadium with almost no shade.

Every person I have talked to who has been inside the new stadium says it is spectacular. The Marlins' local TV ratings are actually quite good, so there are fans out there -- they just chose to stay home to watch.

On the financial side, being the owner of the new stadium instead of the tenant will add tens of millions to the team's bottom line -- including income from any concerts and other events held there. And for all we know, Loria could have been socking away most of the $60 million a year in profit he's been making the last several years for just this occasion.

Dec 07, 2011 07:44 AM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

Or Loria's been socking away most of the $60 million a year to sock away most of $60 million a year.

Dec 07, 2011 19:07 PM
rating: 1
 
cdmyers

Even if Pujols and Reyes perform next year, the chance that their contracts aren't albatroses in 5-6 years is vanishingly small, given Pujols's age and Reyes's health. Even in the best case scenario the Marlins become the Cubs of the 2016-2020 era, except even more so.

Dec 07, 2011 07:52 AM
rating: 0
 
surfdent48

Good article Jay. The strategy of the Marlins spending so much is quite risky and expecting fans to show up even with a good product on the field is suspect given what has happened at Tampa. Getting a starter to replace Vasquez is paramount. The still-learning young Volstad is much better than a #5 with his xFIP of 3.64 showing his true skill set. The risk of Johnsons misbehaving shoulder and Anibal Sanchez' labrum history screams caution for this Miami Marlins franchise. And throwing Ozzie into this mix?

Dec 07, 2011 07:53 AM
rating: 0
 
ostrowj1

This is reminiscent of the 1997 Marlins, when they signed Alex Fernandez, Moises Alou, and Bobby Bonilla (and having signed Kevin Brown the following year). It worked out fairly well then...

Dec 07, 2011 09:30 AM
rating: 0
 
PeterBNYC

The Mets need a SS. What's wrong with Hanley, that a change of scene won't change? Can the Mets afford him? With help from the Marlins (say, $5 million a year) they can. "Mr. Loria, it's a barfain!" Discuss among yourselves.

Dec 07, 2011 10:40 AM
rating: 0
 
Eddie

I don't agree with those who believe that a new stadium will miraculously inspire the Marlins' fans. This is a fickle city who has never really cared about baseball.

Where the stadium is now, right in the middle of the most latin area of the city, with grossly insufficient parking, I'd be surprised if the team cracks the top 10 in the first year, and it will be all downhill from there.

Dec 07, 2011 11:17 AM
rating: 0
 
terryspen

Peter -- Hanley will be playing third, which despite his protests will be a better position for him. And unless the Mets want to give the Marlins David Wright in exchange, third has been a black hole for the Fish.

Dec 07, 2011 13:29 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Rumor has it the Marlins now want to trade Ramirez because he won't play third base. Does that mean, in effect, the Marlins are paying $10 million more a year to cover their shortstop position with an inferior player?

If I were the Marlins in this situation, I'd actually consider moving Reyes to second base if it weren't a position prone to injury.

Dec 07, 2011 19:09 PM
rating: 0
 
hyprvypr

I think ALL baseball fans should be thrilled to see this wild spending. While obviously some of it is based on potential new revenue from their new digs, it gives hope to nearly every team in baseball that someday, maybe just maybe, your last-place, poor-house team that you love dearly might turn into a spender/contender overnight. I hope they sign Buerlhe, Reyes, Pujols AND CJ Wilson, what a coup that would be.

Sure we're all number-crunching baseball nerds here and we all realize that there is a potential, even a fairly decent chance, that this blows up in the Marlins' face, but as the saying goes, Fortune favors the bold.






























































Dec 07, 2011 14:26 PM
rating: 0
 
Jack Thomas

What about the stupid?
The SEC investigation could turn out to be a big deal.
The excessive money causes higher salaries for all of MLB. I wonder if anyone has done the math on how much money Tom Hicks cost baseball by over spending by a supposed $100M on A-Rod's $250M contract.

Dec 07, 2011 16:47 PM
rating: 0
 
thecoolerking
(845)

Who cares how much it costs baseball? There hasn't been a single study to show any correlation between team payroll and ticket prices. If baseball is in such good shape that Loria wants to stay in the game after owning the Expos, clearly these guys have money to burn. As large as these contracts are, the TV revenues are even better. After all, baseball has a lower portion of revenue going towards player salaries than any major sport.

Dec 08, 2011 12:29 PM
rating: 0
 
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